The Russians are Coming

Actually, the Russians already came and went. It was almost 200 years ago. Realizing Alaska was a good place for hunting and fishing but not growing a lot of food stuff, the Russian American Company decided it needed a new outpost; One that could grow food in support of its outposts in Sitka and along the Aleutian Islands chain. But where? Spain had everything from San Francisco Bay to the south and Britain’s Hudson Bay Company had most of the Pacific Northwest under its control. Russia, not wanting to make any of its European brethren unhappy enough to declare war, decided on a quiet, flat peninsula in between the two great world powers on California’s Sonoma Coast and named it Ft. Ross.

The Russians erected a stockade, plowed fields and fell redwood trees to build seagoing vessels. Ft. Ross was actually California’s first shipyard. They unofficially conducted trade with the Spanish and entered into hunting agreements with Yankee shipping for sea otter pelts. They formed peaceful alliances with the nearby native tribes and pretty much kept to themselves. After 40 years, the Russians decided it was time to vacate the fort. Growing food right along the seacoast had never been terribly successful and it was found to be cheaper to buy it directly from the Hudson Bay Company. The Spanish were spreading further north, establishing additional missions and granting large swaths of land to settlers in the region. The writing was on the wall. Most of the contents of the fort were sold to John Sutter and the Russian settlers left California as quietly as they arrived.

But in a fascinating way, Fort Ross has remained very much in the hearts and minds of not only the people of Russia, but the Russian-Americans who now reside in California. The fort represents an historical tie between émigrés and their homeland. Several times a year, Russian-Americans gather at the fort. They celebrate their culture with traditional food, music and dance. They celebrate mass in the fort’s chapel with assistance from Russian Orthodox priests from the Bay Area. The Russian Pathfinders Scouting organization regularly camp at the fort and help out with functions.

As the fort celebrates its 200th Anniversary next year, several special events will be held with several sponsors including the Russian Federation Consulate in San Francisco. Sports Leisure hopes to find one event we can put together with a tour. If you are interested in participating, please contact our office and asked to be put on the Priority Notification List.

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